What I wish I had known – Part Eight – Sandy Mitchell’s confessional diary continues in lockdown

—19th May 2020

In the latest instalment of Sandy’s project diary, he describes a shock at his builders’ return post-lockdown...and their shock at his

Sandy Mitchell and his wife Philippa gloved and masked, ready for a site inspection

It is 6.45 in the morning. A violent banging breaks the unearthly lockdown-silence. Then I hear guttural shouts.

I jump out of bed and dash to the bedroom window in my pyjamas. Figures in black face masks and helmets swarm over the scaffolding on our house. There are five or six of them. A ninja army is launching a dawn attack.

Hold on a second. Are those samurai swords in their hands? They look more like saws and hammers. Maybe it is not ninjas attacking West Berkshire, after all. Blinking with relief, I realise our builders are back. Beneath their hard hats they are now sporting identical black coverings over their mouths and noses as anti-virus protection.

I dash back to bed, elated, to share the thrilling news with my wife. It is more than a month since the builders left our site, driven away by the lockdown and incidentally leaving us with a giant hulk of half-built masonry and a depressing mud-swamp where our wonderful new extension and garden should have been.

Moon rising over the new wing: a harbinger of better times ahead?

Back safely under my duvet, I lie half asleep mulling over a weird paradox. In normal times, anyone who has builders working on their home counts the days until the builders finish and leave them in peace at last but, in these strange times, the return of the builders makes the spirits soar like the first cuckoo of spring. And the mere fact of building on to our home feels in itself like solid, positive action when so much of life is in suspended animation and feels adrift. I realise how lucky we are to have a project going on at this precise moment.

Half an hour later, fully awake, I get up, peel off my pyjamas and wander naked into the bathroom. I turn on the bath tap. Bent over, I glance upwards into a mirror that stretches above the bath. A face behind me is staring back, reflected in the mirror. The man’s eyes, visible above his face mask, register a Kabuki horror-grimace. He is peering at the moment critique through a small side window into the bathroom.

He jerks away from the window as if shot. Did he drop off the scaffold?

I dash to the safety of my duvet. I tell my wife what happened in the bathroom and that, as of today, we are going to have to adopt once more the delicate social protocols that go with having workmen on site: no curtains left open accidentally, no wandering in the garden imagining we can’t be overheard on our mobiles as we share confidences with friends at the other end of the line. For some reason, my wife does not seem to be listening. She lies in bed sniggering and waiting for Act Two of the bedroom farce.

Once dressed, I head downstairs and wonder about taking the traumatised workman a cup of tea and offering my apologies. He has probably seen enough of me for one day, I decide.

Instead, I make myself a cup and ponder instead finding an old bedsheet, painting an NHS rainbow on it, and hanging it from a window emblazoned with a gleeful ‘Welcome Back Boys!’

Throughout the lockdown, while our builders sensibly sheltered at home, the two cheerful workmen refurbishing our swimming pool have continued to appear on site every day and beaver away. They work for a different firm from the main contractors and saw no risk in labouring outdoors, spaced well apart from each other.

And, throughout, the pool-men have kept me busy with brain-teasing decisions. What type of heating system did I want? How about underwater lights, contra-flows, automatic covers, stone copings? All such decisions demand complex mathematical calculations and cost-benefit analyses. But the most testing decision of all was the one that sounded simplest: the colour of the pool.

You thought all pools came in shades of blue? Think again. There are myriad colours and patterns but the samples I was shown were uniformly hideous: a blue so neon-bright it guaranteed a migraine, a black as cheerful as Lenin’s tomb, or a grey so grim it would need only a spray-can to turn our pool into a Peckham underpass.

In the end I chose a sand-coloured liner, with a brand name so embarrassingly Bollywood I can’t share it with you. Oh, alright then. It is called ‘Ultimate Touch Sublime’. And was I naively hoping to find some innocuous Farrow & Ball shade called ‘Morning Dip’ or ‘Rippled Light’ or ‘Quiet Country-Garden Colour That We Promise Won’t Make Your Friends Spill Their Tea with Laughter’.

And the latest news on completing our project? The builders say the new wing will be finished in July, with the pool completed before that. I promise to share photos of the results with you, though I hereby reserve the right to hide the pool from you to avoid a public pillory.

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